2013 Chevy Spark Test Drive: A Mini Car with Mighty Tech
If you’re looking for the poster child for today’s affordable, technology packed-mini cars, look no further than Chevrolet’s 2013 Spark. At 144.7 inches long, the Spark is Chevrolet’s first mini car, a class that includes Fiat’s 500 and Nissan’s Versa. But when you pull the door open and take a look at the 7-inch touchscreen and smartphone integration awaiting you inside, you’ll swear you stepped into a car that costs twice as much as the Spark’s $12,000 base price.
To put the Spark to the test, we took it on a trip from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn and back to see if this tiny teched-out wonder could handle the big city.
The Chevy Spark is the smallest vehicle in the automaker’s fleet to get the teched-out treatment. It’s also the first one to be designed with smartphones in mind. Pumping life into the Spark’s techno heart is Chevy’s MyLink infotainment and connectivity system and a 7-inch color touchscreen, a first for a vehicle in this class.
The MyLink home screen features five options including Audio, Picture & Movie, Telephone, Smartphone Link and Settings. Each option is typed out using lower case letters in a stylish blue font and features small icons indicating its functionality on the left. The Audio tab, for example, has a teal musical note next to it, while the Smartphone Link tab gets a pink smartphone icon. To the right of this list, the time, date and outside temperature are provided in a large, easy to read font. Above these are various status icons for OnStar; USB, Bluetooth, AUX and smartphone connectivity and Mute. Overall, the layout is simple to read and understand, ideal for reaching over and tapping at a glance.
From the Audio tab, you can listen to music through the Spark’s AM/ FM radio and XMSirius satellite radio, as well as your iPod, and auxiliary or Bluetooth-connected devices. To choose between devices, simply tap the Source button at the top of the display. We were glad to see that the AM/ FM and XMSirius radios provide users with as many as 35 possible presets. The Radio can be controlled using either the standard onscreen controls or via the Spark’s steering wheel mounted seek buttons. Bring up a song on your iPod and MyLink will display the appropriate album cover art. It’s a simple, but nice touch that helps give the system a bit of life.
On a side note, the Spark is the first Chevy vehicle to not include a CD player as standard equipment. Instead, Chevy expects owners to use their iPods, smartphones or XMSirius to listen to music, which, for a car that’s marketed specifically to tech-savvy users, isn’t too much of a stretch.
MyLink’s Picture & Movie option is one of the more creative features we’ve seen in a vehicle’s infotainment system. Opening the tab with a USB device plugged into the Spark’s USB port allows you to view saved photos and videos. Photos can be viewed as slideshows with your favorite music playing over them. Chevy has wisely chosen to make both features unavailable when the car is not in park, so you won’t have to worry about Spark drivers speeding down the highway while watching their favorite episodes of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
We do, however, wish that Chevy opened up the Picture & Movie tab to allow for viewing streaming movies from users’ smartphones. As for now, though, you’ll have to load your media on a USB device. Still, that in and of itself is certainly a worthwhile feature.
The Telephone tab, like most similar systems, provides you with an onscreen dial pad, as well as your phone’s signal strength and battery level. To the right of the dial pad are the Recent Call and Phone Book, or contacts, buttons. In fact, the Spark is actually Chevy’s first car to allow users to access their smartphone’s stored contacts. Our test Spark came with its own iPhone already connected, so we weren’t able to try the feature out on our own Droid X, but from what we saw the Phone Book and Call History both work well.
When your smartphone is connected to MyLink, you can answer calls by either pressing the Answer button on the Spark’s touchscreen or its steering wheel-mounted button. Finished with a call? Tap the onscreen end button or press the steering wheel-mounted button.
Unlike other in-car systems, the Spark’s version of MyLink doesn’t feature an onboard voice recognition program for activating hands-free calling. Instead, the Spark shifts the function to your smartphone’s voice recognition feature. So if your phone doesn’t offer such functionality, you’ll have to rely on the Spark’s physical or touchscreen controls to make hands-free calls.
As expected, MyLink’s Settings menu allows you to alter all manner of system options, ranging from Bluetooth connections to whether tapping onscreen buttons elicits a sound. Interestingly, Chevy also chose to make MyLink’s Settings menu the place from which you can manipulate the Spark’s various lighting and other miscellaneous options. It’s a smart choice, and one that we expect most automakers to pick up on.
The most important feature of MyLink is its Smartphone Link. From here, users can control apps such as Pandora and Stitcher, as well as Chevy’s own BringGo navigation app. To access Pandora or Stitcher, you’ll first have to install the apps on your smartphone. Connect your iPhone or Android device to MyLink and you can start using Stitcher or Pandora as you please.
Information such as saved songs and playlists saved on your smartphone will be carried over and accessible via MyLink. During our drive, we used an iPhone running over Verizon’s 3G network to access both Pandora and Stitcher and didn’t notice any issues with connectivity or buffering.
The Spark’s BringGo app is actually a rebranded version of the GoGo Navigation app we saw during the New York International Auto Show back in April. Overall, the app offers the same functionality that we saw at the show, complete with Single Line Address search, POI information, Live Traffic and Eco Routing. Chevy representatives were quick to point out that the live traffic feature and Single Line Address search will use up some of your smartphone’s data.
To access BringGo, users will have to purchase and download the app from the iTunes App Store or through the Google Play Store to their smartphones. The app itself costs $50, but Chevy says that the amount of functionality you get out of it is on par with the types of onboard navigation systems you would find in other vehicles at a fraction of the price. In truth, the system worked very well, with searches coming up quickly and without issue, regardless of our test iPhone’s signal strength. Chevy managed this by having the app save all of the mapping data it needs, which consists of U.S. and Canadian maps, to users’ smartphones.
In total, you can expect the app to take up between 2GB and 2.5GB of storage space on your phone. If you have the room on your phone, that shouldn’t be much of a problem, but users who are pushing their phones’ storage capacity may want to free up some space before trying to download BringGo. On the plus side, future updates to the navigation app are completely free, and can be accessed through the iTunes App Store or Google Play Store like any other app.
Our one gripe with the BringGo system was how slow it was to respond to our swipe commands. Tapping the display and dragging our finger across the screen moves the map to your desired location, but in our experience, we had to either swipe several times or move our fingers far too deliberately. Fortunately, this wasn’t an issue we ran into with other MyLink functions.
OnStar RemoteLink App
Like many of Chevrolet’s newer vehicles, the Spark comes with OnStar standard. A benefit of that, beyond receiving roadside and emergency assistance, is the ability to control the Spark from the OnStar RemoteLink app. Available for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices, the RemoteLink app allows users to lock and unlock the Spark’s doors, activate the horn and lights and even use the remote start function. Of course, to use the lock and unlock and remote start features, users must have automatic locks and remote start installed on their vehicles.
In addition to controlling vehicle functions, RemoteLink allows you to check up on your car’s overall health. Need to know your lifetime average miles per gallon totals? RemoteLink can tell you. You can also check your remaining oil life, gallons of fuel remaining, tank level, fuel range and total vehicle miles.
As expected, RemoteLink also provides OnStar Directions and Connections subscribers with the ability to search for directions via its Bing navigation function. OnStar has even included a handy feature that lets you track where your car is with its FamilyLink function. The opt-in service allows you to set location alerts for your vehicle or search where it is via the web. We could, however, see this particular feature being a bit of a thorn in many teens’ sides.
The Spark isn’t exactly a new car. In fact, the car is already on sale in Korea and Europe. But for its U.S. debut, the Spark gets a new front fascia, which will spread to other markets, as well as the aforementioned MyLink system. Overall, the Spark’s design is exceedingly sporty.
From its massive twin port grill, to its elongated headlights that stretch from the front the Spark’s nose back to its front fenders, this is an affordable mini car that does its best to look like something much more expensive. Take a look at the Spark’s two tone wheels and you’ll get the sense that the entire car is resting on just a few thin strips of metal.
Chevy has also done an exceptional job of giving the Spark four full-size doors by integrating the rear door handles into the vehicle’s C-pillar, an ingenious move. The character lines running across the Spark make you feel like you’re looking at a car that could easily make its home on a rally track, although that’s certainly not recommended. Around back Chevy says it took pains to integrate the exhaust into the lower rear fascia. This small design decision does a great job in giving the Spark a decidedly up market look versus the competition.
The Spark’s cooler than thou looks continue to the interior where it receives a speedometer and tachometer that’s reminiscent of a motorcycle’s readout. Chevy has also covered parts of the door and dash in plastic coated with the same paint as the car’s exterior. Not only does it add flair to the interior, but it also makes cleaning the door pockets worlds easier.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Spark’s great front and rear passenger head and legroom. We had our roughly six-foot two-inch videographer hop in the backseat and he was easily able to make himself at home without slapping his head on the Spark’s ceiling.
To test out the Spark’s capabilities as an urban roadster, we travelled from posh midtown Manhattan to the hipster Mecca that is Williamsburg, Brooklyn and back. Chevy purposely gave us a circuitous route, hoping that we would get to experience how well the Spark handles the rutted roads of Brooklyn and the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway during a sunny afternoon. And to our surprise, the Spark was more than able to hold its own.
Steering felt precise as we circled the streets around Brooklyn’s McCarren Park, and despite hitting some pretty harsh potholes that looked more like craters from some undocumented asteroid collision, the Spark remained poised. We were especially impressed with the fact that when running over these borderline sinkholes, the Spark never once let out a rattle. The car just felt solid.
At 84 horsepower and 32 pound-foot of torque, the Spark’s 1.25-liter 4-cylinder engine won’t win you any drag races, but it’s perfectly capable of getting you around town without worry. The trade off for that is exceptional fuel economy. When equipped with a manual transmission, you can expect to get 32 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in the Spark. Its tech is some of the best we’ve seen in a car this size, and its excellent build quality and styling will certainly win over the younger set. Hopefully Chevy keeps its word when it says that it will release additional apps for the MyLink’s Smartphone Link. That said, we’re certainly impressed with the technology Chevy has managed to pack into its small car. If you’re looking for a teched-out, budget-friendly car that won’t take up your entire driveway, the Spark may be what you’re looking for.
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